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Is enrollment starting to grow at Pennsylvania universities?

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, 3:51 p.m.
Undergraduate students walk past the Emeriti Faculty Fountain on the California University of Pennsylvania campus in a procession to the convocation center for commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 7, 2016, in California, Pa.
Ken Reabe Jr. | For The Tribune-Review
Undergraduate students walk past the Emeriti Faculty Fountain on the California University of Pennsylvania campus in a procession to the convocation center for commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 7, 2016, in California, Pa.
Undergraduate students arrive at the California University of Pennsylvania convocation center for Commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 7, 2016, in California, Pa.
Ken Reabe Jr. | For The Tribune-Review
Undergraduate students arrive at the California University of Pennsylvania convocation center for Commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 7, 2016, in California, Pa.

College enrollment may be growing as administrators tackle tough issues at some Pennsylvania State System universities where student numbers have been declining since 2011.

Officials at California University of Pennsylvania — where enrollment dropped by 20 percent between 2011 and 2016 — and Clarion University — where enrollment declined 29 percent during that period — say they saw a slight uptick in enrollment as classes got under way this week.

And officials at Indiana University of Pennsylvania — where enrollment declined about 15 percent during that period and is down slightly again this year — are acknowledging that a drop-out rate of about 28 percent of the freshman class by year's end is a problem that must be addressed.

The schools are among the 14 state-owned universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, where enrollment declined by nearly 15,000 students statewide between 2010 and 2016.

Only two universities — West Chester University in suburban Philadelphia, and Slippery Rock University in Butler County — have posted enrollment increases in recent years.

Although officials repeatedly pointed to Pennsylvania's shrinking pool of new high school graduates as a factor in the decline, the numbers have become problematic.

State System officials will be watching enrollment numbers closely this year as they conclude a sweeping review of the State System of Higher Education . Outgoing System Chancellor Frank Brogan initiated the review this year, saying the system's operations became unsustainable in the face of declining enrollment and stagnant state support.

Official enrollment figures won't be released until the beginning of the fourth week of classes, but State System spokesman Kenn Marshall said officials are projecting a 1 percent enrollment decline statewide.

At Cal U, officials said preliminary reports suggest enrollment increased 3 percent or about 225 students from last year when enrollment stood at 7,553.

At Clarion, where total enrollment edged up only slightly from 5,224 last fall to 5,256, officials cited an increase of 100 new students, including undergraduates, transfers and graduate students, as evidence that Clarion is turning the corner on declining enrollment as it launches a celebration of its 150th anniversary.

Spokesmen for the two schools cited new degree programs as factors in helping attract more students.

Cal U Dean of Admissions Tracey Sheetz said the school simplified its merit scholarship program. Rather than requiring students to apply for the awards, the university created a grid using high GPAs and SAT/ACT results so students automatically know how much aid they would receive. She said the school plans to post the grid on its website this fall. Sheetz said officials hope that will make the Washington County school more competitive in efforts to attract strong academic students who are typically offered large awards at more costly private colleges.

Meanwhile at IUP, President Michael Driscoll said freshman enrollment is up this year even though total enrollment is expected to be down slightly.

Driscoll pointed to sagging student retention numbers as part of the problem.

“Of the 2,500 or so freshmen we will see this fall, about 700 of them will not be back next fall,” Driscoll said in an address to the university community. The numbers become even worse at the end of the sophomore year, when four out of 10 who entered as freshmen have left the school, he said.

Driscoll challenged IUP to bump freshmen retention rates to 80 percent from 72 percent within the next five years.

“We must redouble our efforts to do better by our students. It makes financial sense. After all, it's less expensive to keep a student than to recruit a new one. More important, it is the right thing to do,” Driscoll said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib

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